Friday Night Lights

For the first time in years, it appears that the eight teams that will contest the finals this season are already starting to take shape with six rounds to go.

Usually at this stage of the regular season the final four positions in the top eight are up in the air, as teams that have struggled all year long suddenly make a run to the finals and others who are entrenched in the eight begin to slip out of contention.

This year you can split the ladder into three categories: the teams that have excelled over the entirety of the season; the teams whose form has been patchy but are still in the dogfight for the finals; and the teams that will not factor into the equation at all.

There is a four-point difference between the team running fifth (Brisbane) and the team running sixth (Warriors). Out of the Broncos, Cowboys, Dragons, Sea Eagles and Storm, all that is left to be decided is who gets home ground advantage come finals time. Pencil them all in for the top eight. That only leaves three positions left.

The next group goes from the sixth-placed Warriors all the way down to the Raiders in 13th. Out of these eight teams, the best winning percentage over the course of the season thus far is 50%. With the way the Warriors are going at the moment, they will certainly cement a spot in the finals.  Out of the rest of the teams in this group, the Tigers and the Knights should also be able to maintain their positions and scrape into the final two positions in the top eight. For a team like the Raiders, this is usually the time that they begin to string a run of wins together and make a charge for the finals, but if they suffer another loss, then they will fall out of this group and down into the next, which consists of the Eels, Roosters and Titans.

So what does that mean for tonight? It means that both games feature a finals-bound team against a team fighting for the scraps of the top eight. And trust me: all four of them have as much to play for as each other.


MANLY SEA EAGLES VS WESTS TIGERS


Manly will take a huge amount of confidence from last weekend's win over the Penrith Panthers. Manly proved that they can win ugly against a tough opposition, a trait that will come in handy come finals time.

While this is a Manly home game, it will be played at Bluetongue Stadium, a relatively neutral venue for both teams. They're coming up against a reinvigorated West Tigers, who have been able to string together two victories after a lean winter run.

A lot of attention will be turned to the battle between five-eighths Kieran Foran and Benji Marshall, but this game will be won and lost in the forwards. And Manly have set the benchmark for bashing teams into submission through the forwards. The gauntlet has been thrown down; can the Tigers answer the challenge through the middle?


BRISBANE BRONCOS VS CRONULLA SHARKS


Last week the Broncos were held scoreless for the second half; the Sharks couldn't get on the board at all. Along with both team's attack, their momentum ground to a halt as well.

The Broncos will gain more from their loss than the Sharks will because they are still entrenched in the top eight. They now know where they rank against the team leading the NRL, the Melbourne Storm, and can work on improving their weaknesses by the time the finals roll around.

The Sharks' simply cannot lose this game if they want to play finals footy. The impact of skipper Paul Gallen is incredibly important in the outcome; if he doesn't play, I don't know how they can overcome the Broncos. But in the NRL nothing is a certainty.

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